There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.
Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.
So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.
This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.
There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.
Saturday Night Fever is at the Orchard Theatre until 12th January, then continues on tour.